In 2020 you’re nothing in the music industry without your own custom AR filter, layering brightly covered digital swirls over camera displays. Legendary artists such as Prince, Pink Floyd and The Beatles have all launched their own filters on social networks – the Prince estate offering a Purple Rain filter on TikTok and WMG’s Firepit Technology creating Instagram and Facebook filters based on the artwork for classic Pink Floyd albums – while new acts are also jumping on the filter craze, from Gracey’s ‘Empty Love’ to Ale Aguirre’s ‘Soy un Robot’ Instagram filters.
The appeal of these custom filters – most readily associated with Instagram but also available on Facebook, Snapchat and (more rarely) TikTok – is easy to understand. Filters are eminently flexible and can be used to reflect an artist’s particular visual aesthetic, be it Prince’s purple universe or Slipknot’s disquieting masks. They can be funny, artistic and cute – plus they can also be used with music. Gracey’s Instagram filter features an instrumental passage from her song ‘Empty Love’, which the user can manipulate in various ways.
Social media, goofiness and filter ubiquity
Oliver Muoto, the founder of Metablocks, which specialises in digital marketing for the music industry, says that the use of AR filters reflects how young people currently use social media. “We all know that the vast majority of the young population are now on Instagram and messing around with their phones is just something young people do these days,” he says. “Go to a restaurant or go to a line and you have people there with their phones, taking pictures, interacting with each other.”
Timothy Armoo is the CEO of influencer marketing agency FanBytes, which has worked on filter campaigns for Deezer, among others. He believes that filters tap into the essential frivolousness of social media, especially with Snapchat Lenses.
“The reason why lenses work so well is that they give you an opportunity to be a bit goofy,” he says. “People go on social media primarily to goof off and if lenses can give you a form of escapism that’s quite cool.”
Beyond ads: filters offer a new form of connection
Beyond this, of course, filters also work on a more commercial level. Ed Juniper, junior digital marketing manager at Polydor Records, says that filters are especially powerful because the audience connects with them in a more meaningful way than they would do with a standard digital ad.
“You can create something with a novelty or shareable element to drive awareness for big tracks where you need to see immediate results or expand the world of an album or music video into an interactive experience that hardcore fans will love,” he says. “The breadth of the format doesn’t really have any boundaries.”
This interactivity is key: rather than passively consuming filters, fans interact with them and this helps the idea that the filter is promoting to stick in the fan’s head. Juniper calls this exchange “a mutually entertaining and beneficial experience for artists and their fans”.
“Young, savvy audiences know when they’re being served an ad and for lots of artists that’s not the most effective way to reach your fans,” he explains.
Not all social channels are built equal: why filters are easier to make on some platforms and not others
For marketers, meanwhile, filters are relatively easy to create, thanks to the Spark AR Studio which allows users to make AR experiences for Facebook’s family of apps, and Snapchat’s Lens Studio. Facebook’s head of music label partnerships, Megan West, tells Music Ally that “custom artist effects” on Facebook and Instagram allow fans to interact with an artist, track, or album “in a fun, dynamic way while expressing themselves personally and artists can build buzz for a project”.
Bespoke filters on TikTok are, for the moment, a lot rarer. “TikTok hasn’t rolled out a lot of stuff to people,” says Adi Azran, head of marketing for Flighthouse Media. “The API’s closed, there’s not a lot of data you can get. So I’m not really surprised it’s not super easy to do that [create a filter].”
TikTok says that it is possible for artists and labels to get bespoke filters made – such as the Prince one – and the best way to do that is to contact the company directly. But this is not exactly the open access to tools that Facebook and Snapchat offer. The launch of TikTok’s Branded Effect programme in June 2020, which lets users activate “exciting visual effects such as a brand logo or brand product in user’s videos”, will be interesting to watch in this regard.
Reinforcing existing aesthetics or building creative springboards in their own right
Most custom filters fit into one of two distinct categories: those that mirror a song or album artwork (or a general artistic aesthetic); and those that take a looser and more creative approach.
“Sometimes the idea of the filter is a more natural fit with whatever the content or single artwork around a single or album is,” says Muoto. “If you look at Ale Aguirre’s single [‘Soy un Robot’], that is the aesthetic; that is the graphic, a picture of her with a robotic silver face. So – bingo! We are going to let people replicate that.” And that is precisely what her Instagram filter does, superimposing a robotic visual effect onto the user’s face.
Slipknot have their own hugely recognisable aesthetic in their trademark use of masks. It made sense, then, for Warner to use this when it created a set of Facebook Camera effects for the band which allow fans to virtually try on the band’s masks and share the results to social media.
Josh Saunders, head of Firepit Technology at Warner Music, says that the reaction to the Slipknot masks was “overwhelmingly positive”.
“The Slipknot mask creative implementation was an absolute bullseye for the creation of face filters, being as it is associated with the AR creation of existing masks, which are the band’s incredible trademark,” he says.
As for the wider creative approach, Muoto mentions an Instagram filter that his company created for label ConceptHa.us, which uses the song ‘Illuminati’ by Lil Pump and Anuel AA.
“We did a filter for ‘Illuminati’ where that’s more just around the symbolism and the concept of the word ‘Illuminati’,” he explains. “So it’s not exactly the cover artwork, but most of us are familiar with the Illuminati triangle. The idea [of the filter] was that there is a triangle floating over your head and if you stick out your tongue or open your mouth then fire engulfs the pyramid.”
Quizzical attraction: the Q&A filter
There is also the recent trend for Instagram filter quizzes in which users answer a series of questions to discover what kind of fan/character/musical genre they are, with the results typically displayed on a panel over their head.
US dance label Astralwerks recently launched an Instagram filter quiz in which users could discover what electronic music genre they were closest to while dubstep label Never Say Die produced a quiz where fans could discover which of the label’s artists they represented.
Muoto is a fan of these quizzes, which he says “really play off the AR elements” of filters. Armoo, however, is not so convinced, arguing that quizzes only really appeal to core fans. “We haven’t really seen that sort of thing [quizzes] work that well,” he says. “Because the people who tend to do that tend to be people who base it on the artist. They tend to go: ‘What type of Ariana Grande fan are you?’ That only really works if you are a very strong Ariana Grande stan.”
Super-serving existing fans versus creating new ones
Here, perhaps, is the nub of the filter debate: do they appeal only to core fans who you don’t really need to market to so much? Or can they reach a wider audience?
Most marketers, as you might imagine, are convinced it’s the latter. “If a creative implementation ‘hits the nail on the head’, in terms of the campaign aesthetic and the audience demographic, then the viral impact is huge,” says Saunders. Juniper, meanwhile, says the reaction to the Gracey filter “helped to deliver the strongest single launch for Gracey so far”.
As with so many things on social media, artist support is important, encouraging fans to try out filters and share the results without coming across as too heavyhanded or obviously commercial.
“The filters we have done, the ones that tend to work better, the artists go out and they do something, they post it out there to their fans,” says Muoto. “Some people are creative and they do contests and competitions or they just feature and highlight the most creative content.”
It’s all about the ROI FYI
Another key question is whether filters, for all their popularity, offer a solid return on investment. This is not always easy to assess. Armoo says his company looks to create lenses where, after engaging with the lens, fans get the opportunity to stream the song. “That works very well,” he says. “We are able to do direct attribution.”
In cases where this is not possible, marketers need to take a more holistic approach. “In instances where you’re trying to drive a specific record, you consider everything else going on around the track,” Juniper explains.
“Things like how it’s performing at streaming and radio et cetera – then correlate the engagements to ascertain the impact the AR effect Is having. For a more fan-focused experience, you’re looking for uses, shares and engagement. You can tell it’s effective when you can see this spreading beyond your existing followers.”
It helps in terms of ROI that filters can be relatively cheap to make, thanks to the tools offered by social networks. Juniper says that “for as little as £100 or £200 you can deliver something really effective and often in terms of reach and engagement it’s great value for money versus more traditional means of digital marketing”.
Saunders adds, “There are two main factors to take into consideration: one, the complexity of the creation of the 3D models; and two, the complexity of the interaction design,” he says. “If you use existing creators out there, such as freelancers in the filter community, then you can get simple ones done for under £1k. More complicated filters and lenses do often way exceed this, though.”
Today’s necessity or tomorrow’s digital landfill?
Another concern for marketers is that filters could become a victim of their own popularity, with what was once a novel way to reach fans becoming another digital marketing cliché. For the moment, at least, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Juniper says that filter technology is constantly moving forward “as are the imaginations of designers building them”.
“Advances in the accuracy of face tracking, retina tracking, object tracking and so on allow effects to be more convincing, compelling and open new avenues to be creative,” he says.
Certainly, recent developments in the field have seen music marketers use filters in ever more creative ways.
To tease her 2019 track ‘Me!’, Taylor Swift’s team released a custom AR Instagram effect over three days, with the effect adding a new layer each day, and then created a filter for the Lover album; Haim turned the cover of their new album Women in Music Pt. III into an interactive AR experience that allowed fans to create a virtual soundscape; and Mark Ronson and King Princess made an AR music video for their collaboration ‘Pieces of Us’, which was shot using AR effects rather than post-production.
Outside of Instagram, Saunders believes that TikTok’s Branded Effect programme could be an important development. “The UGC focus of TikTok and the enormous music-oriented audience size, makes their AR area very much one to watch and we will be building Effects going forward,” he says.
Saunders believes that ‘off-platform’ filters, such as custom apps or WebAR (AR experiences that are accessed through a web browser) are also set to get bigger. “Certainly, with Apple’s AR tech on iOS, there are wide-ranging and very powerful ‘sky’s the limit’ AR possibilities for designing custom experiences for fanbases, such as portals on mobile apps,” he says.
Ultimately, Saunders believes the engagement that Firepit is seeing with filters is proof of their effectiveness. “I can’t go into numerical specifics, but if one works hard to match the relevance of the campaign creative assets/aesthetic and combines that with the sort of interaction design that would be perfect for the fan demographic in question, then the engagement we’ve seen has been very impressive indeed,” he suggests.
“The main clue is the large amount of repeat commissioning,” he says. “That is, we are increasing in our production of them all the time because the fan reaction and KPIs generally exceed expectations on a regular basis. It’s an exciting area because AR tech is always moving forward. That doesn’t leave audiences any chance to find filters passé – something that could be a danger – provided you keep pushing the innovations forward to stop any stagnation.”